Statistician and political polling analyst Nate Silver recently came to MIT’s Communications Forum at Comparative Media Studies to discuss his career — from student journalist to baseball prognosticator to the creator of FiveThirtyEight.com, one of the world’s most influential political blogs. He was in conversation with Seth Mnookin, a former baseball and political writer who co-directs MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.
Below are some live notes of their conversation. These are not verbatim notes, so please don’t quote directly without checking the podcast. Additions and corrections are welcome. You can find further commentary at #mitnatesilver. And you can also listen to the entire podcast here:
Mnookin: Can you describe how your career began?
Silver: I started out in 2000 — the economy was good, and I took a consulting job at KPMG. I spent most of my time on transfer pricing consulting — tax regulations that govern how much income a company can get out of its subsidiaries. It’s really boring. I think too many kids take a job as a consultant, but I hadn’t thought too much about what I wanted to do having gone to U of C, “the place where fun goes to die.” I think it’s tough for someone who knows what course in life to take aged 21 or 22. I started rebelling against it, having fun in Chicago and playing poker which eventually became a baseball prediction engine.
Can you explain why Pecota was seen as revolutionary?
Silver: Baseball is the world’s best dataset — there’s a very rich database. The goal was to capture the full range of forecasts, which is difficult to do. Things are framed in terms of probabilities, not certainties. It does show people the work about how you get to your predictions, which I think has more value than a typical black box approach. The journey is often more interesting than the predictions.
Did your parents think you were insane for leaving your consulting job?
Silver: Most of my money was coming from poker at the time. In 2003, Chris Moneymaker won the poker world series. He was an OK poker player who got lucky. Poker is really easy to play if you know what hand the other person has. I would stay up all night and play $500 and then catch a cab to work and sleep at my desk. I didn’t care anymore. I wish I’d played more poker, because now the games have become very tough.
So you can’t play anymore because naive players have been weeded out?
Silver: Two things: The U.S. government made it very hard to get money into online poker sites. Once the bad players (we call them “fish”) were bust out, there was no more supply of them for the predators, so to speak. You probably will see a revival of online poker because some states have liberalized their rules.
You brought Pecota to Baseball Prospectus and joined the site (2003-2008). Were you writing or developing tools?
Silver: I was doing that and managing the business, doing three or four things at once. It was ahead of the curve in some ways — we had a pay wall early on that was successful and self-sustaining, although the competition got a lot better very quickly.
I wouldn’t find it all that attractive to work for a team, because I like to analyze data where you’re your own boss and share your findings with the public. I’ve done consulting projects where you share the data with a room of 12 people, and it’s much less satisfying than being able to disclose it to the general public.
How did FiveThirtyEight start?
Silver: In part because of the law Congress passed to ban online poker, I followed that and the representatives who took the lead on it. That got me more engaged. I was in Chicago at the time, and Barack Obama was a name around a lot at that time. It was exciting to have a candidate in the same circle.
In baseball, the revolution happened from the outside in. Bill James was doing this stuff 20 or 30 years ago.
In politics there were campaigns who were sophisticated about this — [George] Bush/[Karl] Rove and Obama in 2004. For some reason both [John] McCain and [Mitt] Romney didn’t seem to learn from that. Obama did, of course, and you also had the [Howard] Dean campaign.
It’s always dangerous when campaigns are too worried about the polls. There’s often not a lot of context about why people believe what they believe. I don’t think campaigns should be dictated by polls.
Every voter is measured by two scores: firstly, whether you’re a sure Obama voter or a sure Romney voter; and the second rates how likely you are to vote. By the way, you can tell a lot about a person from their name and where they live. You can tell their age, ethnicity, income and many other things. There are problems: I had a friend who was from the Philippines who had a Hispanic surname and was targeted with lots of material aimed at Mexicans.
You got interested in politics, and then how did FiveThirtyEight come about?
Silver: I started writing at Daily Kos, anonymously under the name hablano (because I liked Mexican food). I was known for writing about baseball, and baseball and politics don’t intersect that well.
Silver: I was partly playing hooky, and I didn’t want people to reflect on my baseball perspectives.
One problem that a lot of political journalists have is that you have the same amount of column space to fill every day, but the news doesn’t flow that way. There are months and months where nothing important happens at all. But you can’t leave it blank.
Why did you go public?
Silver: I had people from Newsweek and others that wanted to talk to me, and I felt that if I wanted to capitalize on the interest, I had to out myself.
You were coming into a field that was fairly set in its ways — what was the reaction of political journalists to your arrival?
Silver: It was friendlier at first than it became later on, before I became threatening in some way. The flip side of having no news but you need a story is the time when you have so much demand. 2008 was a year like that, a 1-in-20-years kind of election. It was a good time to be in that space.
The tone of the blog was more cheeky and confrontational in 2008, but I realized as I went along that I had philosophical opposition to the way that most campaigns are covered by the mainstream press. Sometimes blogs contains explicit media criticism.
In 2008 you got all 35 Senate races and all but one congressional race. (You missed Indiana.) Was it clear that this was going to be a full-time job?
Silver: By 2008 it had become my full-time job, although if McCain had won, it would not have been a good career choice.
How did your move to the New York Times begin?
Silver: I went to the MIT sports business conference in 2010 and ran into one of the NYT editors (Gerald Marzorati) on the train platform on the way back. That’s where the conversation started.
People forget how successful the NYT is in digital content. I spent several months to make the decision, against several news organizations that were seen as more digitally focused. There were lots of attractive offers on the table.
Who else asked you?
Silver: I can’t say.
Had you made the decision to join a news organization by that point?
Silver: I think so. It’s hard to be both a content producer and a business person managing the brand. If you latch on to someone else, you have fewer business decisions to make. The NYT is a great way to distribute your product. A mistake that a lot of businesses make is that a developer or content producer becomes a manager, and sometimes you’re not utilizing that person as effectively as you could be.
When you joined, did your reach or influence change immediately?
Silver: It wasn’t an order of magnitude shift. We got 50% increase in traffic. The peaks are a lot higher, such as when something ends up on the front page.
What kind of page views?
Silver: We got something like 3 million uniques on Election Day 2008. It ramped up — it started out with about 500 views when I began on Daily Kos; 3,000 after Newsweek; 5,000 when [Sarah] Palin was [chosen as running mate]; 100,000 at the conventions. It has steady but not world-beating traffic, but it goes off the charts during the election cycle.
Lots of people seemed to want to pick a fight with you. Places like Politico were writing pieces asking whether you were going to be a one-term celebrity. Why do you think that is?
Silver: I had one Politico reporter who said, ‘Now that you’re hired by the Times, we can’t quote you.’ It was deliberate competition. In 2008 it was fairly clear that Obama was going to win. There were some exceptions: Martha Crowley from Fox said she thought McCain would win by one point.
We were never saying Obama is going to win for sure, but that the probability that it’s a toss-up isn’t high. I think part of what made the attacks personal was that there wasn’t ambiguity; you couldn’t debate the details.
There’s a difference between debating process and results. You have a good process.
Silver: You can talk about people being too results oriented — and they are too results oriented. In business you want your product to be successful. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t seen as acceptable to bet your business on an outcome. In poker it’s honorable to bet on things.
So last time, did you get 50/50?
Silver: I’m not sure that 50/50 matters as much as getting the election. We had Obama winning the popular vote by 2%, and he won by 4%. It’s almost as big an error as saying Romney won by a quarter point. What was fortunate for me was that you had a lot of states barely leaning to Obama. So if Obama beat his polls, which he did, he would pick up a lot of states. The same wasn’t true for Romney.
If Romney had won, would you doubt your system?
Silver: Not really. We had a way to account for the economy — there are lots of ways to do that. By the time you get to the end of the campaign, all the model-based predictions converge. It becomes an exercise in how much uncertainty there is. Earlier in the race it’s a more difficult modeling problem. I would have felt bad, but I wouldn’t think I would have to go and tear the model up.
You would have felt bad because you’re an Obama supporter.
Silver: The fact that Obama won the election didn’t occur to me until a couple of days afterwards. I was working 100-hour weeks and you become so involved in the psychodrama — as well as doing blog posts and a book tour — so you become abstracted from the reality of the campaign. The bubble is a real thing. Journalists think that the way a column is interpreted can radically shift opinion. You want to avoid that kind of thing.
Jill Abramson says ‘half the people coming to the Times search for Nate.’ She said you have your own tower. You signed a three-year contract which comes up this summer, so what’s next?
Silver: I don’t have any news to break. I’m in active discussions with the Times. It’s a great fit; I think Jill is a great editor. Anything can happen in negotiation, but I’m happy working there. The best and worst things about it are self-evident: They still have a great brand, and they let their people have a strong voice of their own. The negative is that you get a level of scrutiny that is deserved in some cases, but everyone comes after the Times. It’s the Yankees, and everyone hates the Yankees. The less obvious downside of that is that it’s hard to be casual at the Times. In a blog, you can say, “Here’s an observation I’ve had, I haven’t thought about this very deeply.” It’s hard to do that at the Times. Although, for people like myself or David Carr, it is a space that cultivates having many voices.
You mentioned your methodology is not as transparent as it might be in academia. What is it that has made you so popular? The voice of the blog? Is it the fact that you’re not putting these numbers out there, but doing it with voice and narrative?
Silver: I spend a lot of time in my writing. I read and reread my posts four or five times. I spend a lot of time on the graphic presentation. The Times’ graphics people are the best in the world at what they do. What we’re talking about is not that complicated. Sometimes I get into a back and forth with academics about things. How do you distill the gist of something without dumbing it down? It’s hard to do.
Do you think that we are moving towards the type of predictions you do, applying those predictions to a broader subset of issues? Could that become a scientific discipline?
Silver: There’s more interest in data science now. I’m suspicious of claims that there’s an inflection point in technological growth. The constraint is not the amount of information you have, it’s our ability to learn from that data. Our human constraints are a much bigger factor than the growth of data. You have problems like “overfitting” where you’re mining data from the past and claiming it’s predictive, but it may just be descriptive. Is big data producing advances in prediction? Yes in some cases, but it’s a lot slower than you might think.
You talk a lot about Bayesian methods.
Silver: What qualifies as Bayesian is a sticky subject. I don’t mean it in the strictly academic sense. I use it to mean you do have a set of biases — the consensus up to that time. So if you’re testing a null hypothesis, for instance, if you find something that’s statistically significant but doesn’t make sense in the context of other learning, you should be suspicious. I think the idea of updating your beliefs as you move forward it Bayesian.
It’s a Bayesian philosophy.
Silver: Yes, there’s a frequentist technique you can apply in a Bayesian way.
You had strong words for the punditocracy. What I find frustrating is columnists who assert things with no factual basis and then claim if you criticize it, they’re just exercising their right to voice an opinion.
Silver: The thing about prediction, is that you’re putting your opinion on the line. I’m not just being cheeky.
Polls do fairly well under certain assumptions. They’re bad at telling us why people do things. People are bad at predicting their behavior far in the future.
The fact that Peggy Noonan is still at the WSJ. Is that the power of narrative?
Silver: She’s a brilliant writer. The story I tell in my first book is that our brains are wired to build stories around essentially random data. People consume news in two different ways (according to party). I’d like to know which polls were cited by the media and how often. That would tell you something about media bias.
Rodrigo Davies is a Research Assistant at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and an MS student in the Comparative Media Studies program. His research interests include the impact of social media on political discourse, crowdsourcing and political participation, ICT4D and user-led service design. Rodrigo works with the crisis mapping initiative Standby Task Force and is a policy advisor to the UK-based civic crowdfunding platform Spacehive. Before joining the Center Rodrigo was based Mumbai where he was a co-founding editor of Conde Nast India’s digital editorial business. Previously he was a journalist at the BBC and Bloomberg News. He holds a B.A. in History and Politics from Oxford University.